- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Jacobs took the pitch, got tripped up by linebacker Joel Thompson and shot forward. Buoniconti rocketed to meet him, diving just inches off the turf. Jacobs had never been hit harder: Years later a doctor would find that the tackle had cracked one of Jacobs's lower vertebrae.
"... and they got denied again," Buoniconti says. "At least I got that silver lining, man. It would've sucked if I'd broken my neck and they still got the first down."
In the aftermath nobody got off easy. Family lore has it that Nick, horrified that his great love, hard-nosed football, had destroyed his son, had to be stopped from wrenching off his Super Bowl ring and flinging it. Terry wondered if she was to blame, having let Marc play in high school even after learning that he had an unusually narrow spinal column. But the Buonicontis found a place to direct their anger and fear: Soon Nick noticed that all his calls to The Citadel were being directed to lawyers; soon it became clear that the school would refuse to pay Marc's medical bills or honor his scholarship. F Troop was whipsawed between loyalty to Marc and loyalty to the institution. His close friend Stephens, who shared a love of Bob Marley songs with Marc and who would testify at the trial on Buoniconti's behalf just after graduating, felt the friendship caused him to be blackballed for his last 2½ years on campus. "I had a target on me," he says. "They knew which side of the fence I was on."
In 1988 Buoniconti returned for his class's graduation only because he felt he owed it to his company-mates. He went back once more, for an off-campus 10th-year reunion, but relations between The Citadel and its most famous cadet remained icy. "We were shammed in the case," Buoniconti says, referring to the jury's three-hour deliberation and decision to award him nothing. More galling was his belief that the school's legal strategy, which argued that Marc's injury occurred because he speared Jacobs, portrayed him as a reckless freelancer. "Where's the military code of honor the school is supposed to have?" he says. "Am I not a soldier to them? It's like going out to battle, getting shot and being left there."
His disgust marinated for more than two decades. It was as if, in allowing himself to hate this one place, he found an escape valve for all the anger, the nastiness, the love of leveling some poor ballcarrier that had made him such a good linebacker. Because there was no room for venom in his new existence. Once he stopped grieving, once he felt himself cared for by so many selfless people, saw so many strangers give time and money to help cure him, Buoniconti began to believe: Being paralyzed didn't end his life. Being paralyzed saved it.
This isn't just because Buoniconti is certain that, had he remained ambulatory, he would have flunked out of The Citadel, returned to Miami and fallen back into trouble. It's that as the Miami Project grew, as he rose to lead the Buoniconti Fund in 1999, he found that no other high matched raising money, pushing for a cure, seeing paralyzed people gain hope. He enrolled at Miami to study psychology and specialized in posttraumatic depression. He made the dean's list several times and graduated in '93.
"This chair made me grow a conscience," Marc says. "I never had one before."
It wasn't enough. He still had 19 years to make up for. So Marc didn't limit his transformation to the time he spent working at the Project. He and Terry, who divorced Nick in 1997, grew close; his dad became his best friend. He made his apartment, four stories down from his mother's, a crash pad for friends down on their luck: drugs, broken marriages, no income. He put himself on call. If anyone needed help, he was waiting.
Herman Jacobs needed something, Lord knows. He was a religious man, he prayed and sang Christian songs, but his was not an active faith. It's as if, in the years after college, he'd forgotten the old saw about God helping those who help themselves. No, worse: He felt that any movement, any effort at all, just wasn't worth the risk. Henry Mull was part of that, yes, and so was Marc Buoniconti. But Jacobs's haunting had begun much earlier, in Tampa's Ybor City. Hadn't he been the one to greet his dad at the door?
He was five years old the day Willie arrived home from work with all hell rolling in behind him. A man, an acquaintance of one of Herman's sisters, met Willie outside and began yelling about money, and the man pulled a gun and Willie started to run—onto the street, behind cars, into a startled neighbor's house. Herman trailed behind. The man put two shots into Willie's back, and Herman couldn't help but want to look. There was the body. "I walked in," Herman says of the scene and nothing more.